Episode 030: Reindeer and Moose don’t confuse them

In Episode 30, I admit a M I S T A K E, in that I did not realize Finland has a sizable moose population and so therefore assumed that although this thing looks like a moose, it must be a reindeer head. So because I made a M I S T A K E, the whole class is being punished by learning about reindeer and moose of Finland.

Oh yeah, I’m back from my trip to Finland. I had a great time!

Finnish forest reindeer:

Barren-ground caribou:

Finnish moose:

Alaskan moose:


Oh, here’s a link to information about my new book! More details coming next week.

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

This is the first episode I’ve put together since returning from Finland last week. I had a great time on my trip! WorldCon was amazing, I got to hang out with some good friends, and I had lots of positive feedback after the panel I was on. One day I went to a fun Viking-themed restaurant with my friends Emma and Dave (hi guys!), where I ordered reindeer. It was really good, and when I got my food I tweeted a picture of the plate along with a picture of a stuffed animal head across from me. I captioned it something like, “A reindeer is watching me eat reindeer.”

Unfortunately, that wasn’t a reindeer head. It was a moose head. When I first saw it I knew it was a moose head, but I didn’t believe myself that it was a moose head because there’s no moose in Finland, right? Just reindeer.

Five thousand replies correcting me later, I sheepishly admitted that I was wrong and swore I would in the future trust myself to ID moose heads versus reindeer heads without convincing myself I was wrong. And just to clear things up, here’s an entire episode on certain hoofed Ice Age megafauna that live in Finland.

The reindeer living today are all one species, Rangifer tarandus, although there are a number of subspecies. Reindeer evolved about 3 million years ago and are closely related to moose.

During the late Pleistocene, better known as the ice ages, reindeer were much more widely spread than they are today. You could have found herds of reindeer in Tennessee and Spain during the last glaciation around 12,000 years ago. These days, wild reindeer are found in Norway, Finland, Iceland, and Siberia, and in Alaska, Canada, and Greenland. In North America, reindeer are called caribou. Wild reindeer and caribou numbers are in decline worldwide due to climate change and habitat loss.

Most reindeer are migratory to at least some extent. Some populations of caribou in North America migrate 3,000 miles a year. The only mammals that migrate farther than that are whales. Mating occurs during autumn migration, and calves are born after spring migration in May or June.

Reindeer have larger hearts than other ruminants of about their same size, which helps them run and swim for extended periods of time in cold environments. Reindeer knees click when they walk, and researchers believe this helps individuals keep track of each other in white-out conditions.

Reindeer eat leaves, twigs, some types of grass, and mushrooms, but their primary food in winter is the reindeer lichen. Mammals don’t typically eat lichens, but reindeer have developed a special enzyme called lichenase that helps them digest it. In spring they may also eat bird eggs, fish, and rodents when they can catch them. Instead of secreting urea in their urine as almost all mammals do, reindeer retain it within the digestive system for the nitrogen it contains.

Now, in my defense, the reindeer I’m familiar with are North American caribou, and many caribou have somewhat palmate antlers and heavy muzzles that kind of resemble moose. At least at first glance, especially if you’re convinced you’re looking at a reindeer head and not a moose head. Most reindeer in Europe have slenderer muzzles and more typically deer-like antlers. Reindeer have the largest antlers to body size of all living deer species, even counting the moose. Moose antlers are larger, but moose bodies are also bigger. Some mature male forest reindeer can have antlers almost seven feet wide with up to 44 points. Both females and males grow antlers, although females have smaller antlers and individuals in some populations don’t grow them at all. While males shed their antlers soon after the rut season, females keep theirs all winter and use them to defend their feeding areas from other reindeer.

In winter reindeer hooves are sharp and hard like ordinary deer hooves, which helps them keep a good purchase on ice and allows them to dig through snow to the lichen beneath. In summer, though, when the ground is muddy and soft, the hooves become more like spongey footpads to help spread their weight across a larger surface.

The first mention of reindeer herding comes from the ninth century, but the Sámi people, once called Lapps, of what is now northern Finland, Sweden, and Norway had probably domesticated reindeer long before that—at least 2,000 years ago and possibly as long as 7,000 years ago. The Sámi were traditionally nomadic, moving with their herds. They used reindeer for meat, milk, fur, and transport. These days reindeer herding is pretty hands-off, with herds moving around as they like while the herders check them periodically using ATVs or snowmobiles. But reindeer herding is an important aspect of Sámi culture, and extensive knowledge of reindeer and weather is still passed down mostly orally.

While reindeer have been at least semi-domesticated for thousands of years, the caribou of North America have never been domesticated, although many native cultures in North America depend on caribou hunting. As a result, domesticated reindeer tend to be heavier than caribou, migrate much shorter distances, and calve earlier in the year.

Next, let’s talk about moose. In North America, moose are called moose. But in Europe, moose are called elk.

The word elk is old and comes from the same Germanic root language that Old English evolved from. The word moose was borrowed from the Algonkian languages at the end of the 16th century. So I guess it’s inaccurate to say that it’s wrong to call your moose elk. I mean, before the 16th century people in Europe had to call moose something and the word elk was just sitting there. What we call elk in North America is a totally different large deer, native to North America and parts of Asia. But since the word moose is just fun to say, I don’t know why people in Europe haven’t adopted it. Then again, I also don’t know why we call elk elk and not WAH-pah-tee [wapiti] in North America, since wapiti is another Algonkian word.

But yes, moose do live in Europe, specifically northern Europe and parts of Russia. Moose did once have a much larger range. Moose remains only 3900 years old have been found in Scotland, but once the moose died out, the word elk was just floating around with nothing to fasten itself to, so for a long time people in Britain used the word elk to refer to any large deer, especially red deer—which resemble North American elk aka wapiti.

Anyway, I’m calling them moose and we’re not going to discuss the wapiti in this episode because I’m already confused enough as it is.

Like the reindeer, there is only one species of moose but several subspecies. The biggest are the Alaskan moose and the East Siberian moose. Big males of both can stand over seven feet tall at the shoulder and weigh over 1500 pounds. The moose subspecies of North America generally have larger antlers with two lobes each, whereas Eurasian moose subspecies typically have one lobe each. The largest spread of antlers ever measured was just under seven feet across. Only male moose grow antlers.

The moose likes marshy or wet areas and eats a lot of aquatic plants, although it will also rear up on its hind legs to reach tree leaves. It eats leaves, twigs, and roots, and prefers low-fiber plants. It can’t digest hay. Moose have even been known to dive to reach plants. Its nostrils seal when underwater, which allows it to eat without lifting its head out of the water.

Moose evolved around 2 million years ago in Europe, with the earliest known species called the French moose. It was actually bigger than the Alaskan moose but looked more like a deer. It didn’t have the modern moose’s heavy snout and its antlers were over eight feet across, mostly just one unbranched beam with a small palmation at the ends. By around a million years ago the French moose had given rise to the broad-fronted stag moose, which migrated from Eurasia to North America. It looked more like its modern descendant.

Like all deer, moose and reindeer have no upper incisors, just a hard palate. Both are also ruminants, which means their food goes through a complex system of bacterial fermentation, including needing to be regurgitated and rechewed as cud, so that the animal can extract as much nutrition from low-protein plant food as possible.

Around 100,000 moose live in Finland and hunting permits are limited each year to roughly the same number as calves born that year. Moose sound exactly like you’d expect them to sound, like this:


While I was in Finland, I didn’t find as much time to bird as I’d planned. But my first night in Helsinki let me see an animal that I didn’t expect to see at all—I didn’t, in fact, know it was an animal that ever lives in cities. I won’t go into the reason why I was wandering around Helsinki at 3am on a Monday because it’s a long story without much of a payoff. But while I was out and about, I kept seeing an animal that at first I couldn’t identify. At first glance I thought it was a huge rat, but its legs were too long. Then I thought it might be a dog, but it wasn’t shaped right. It took me several sightings to realize I was looking at a hare, probably the European hare.

I’d never seen a hare before. I’m used to our cottontail rabbits, which are adorable and have tails like powder puffs, but which aren’t very big. This hare was easily over a foot tall with long legs, and it was hopping busily around the quiet streets of Finland’s largest city under the light of a full moon.

That’s it for this episode—apologies for how short it is, but I am unbelievably jetlagged. If you’re listening to this one the week it comes out, I’ll be at DragonCon this weekend. If you’re going to be there too and want to say hi, feel free to email or tweet at me! After DragonCon my schedule should go back to normal.

Oh, and one last thing—I have a book out! I’ll talk about it more in next week’s episode, but if you’re interested, the book is called Skytown and it’s a fun steampunk fantasy adventure about a couple of ladies who are airship pirates. It’s available in paperback right now but should soon be released as an ebook too. It’s published by Fox Spirit Books. I’ll put a link in the show notes.

Anyway, you can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.com. We’re on Twitter at strangebeasties and have a facebook page at facebook.com/strangeanimalspodcast. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on iTunes or whatever platform you listen on. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way. Rewards include stickers and twice-monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 029: Two Lake Monsters

This week we investigate a couple of famous lake monsters, Nessie and Champ. Don’t worry, there are more lake monster and sea monster episodes coming in the future!

Most lake monster pictures look like this. Compelling! This was taken in Loch Ness:

The famous Mansi photograph taken in Lake Champlain:

Beluga whales are really easy to spot. Look, this one has a soccer ball!

Further reading:

Hunting Monsters by Darren Naish

Abominable Science! by Daniel Loxton and Donald R. Prothero

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

Back in March, we released an episode about sea monsters. For a long time it was our second most downloaded show, behind the ivory-billed woodpecker, although the jellyfish and shark episodes have taken over the top spots lately. I always intended to follow up with an episode on lake monsters, so here it is.

Let me just say going in that I think most lake monster sightings are not of unknown animals. On the other hand, I also firmly believe there are plenty of unknown animals in lakes—but they’re probably not very big, probably not all that exciting to the average person, and probably not deserving of the name monster. But who knows? I’d love to be proven wrong. Let’s take a look at what people are seeing out there.

One of the biggest names in cryptids is Nessie, the Loch Ness Monster. She and Bigfoot are the superstars of cryptozoology. But despite almost a century of close scrutiny of Loch Ness, we still have no proof she exists.

Loch Ness is the biggest of a chain of long, narrow, steep-sided lakes and shallow rivers that cut Scotland right in two along a fault line. Loch Ness is 22 miles long with a maximum depth of 754 feet, the biggest lake in all of the UK, not just Scotland. It’s 50 feet above sea level and was carved out by glaciers. During the Pleistocene, Scotland was completely covered with ice half a mile deep until about 18,000 years ago. And before you ask, plesiosaurs disappeared from the fossil record 66 million years ago.

Loch Ness isn’t a remote, hard to find place. All the lochs and their rivers have made up a busy shipping channel since the Caledonian Canal made them more navigable with a series of locks and canals in 1822, but the area around Loch Ness was well populated and busy for centuries before that. Loch Ness has long been a popular tourist destination, well before the Nessie sightings started. There have been stories of strange creatures in Loch Ness and all the lochs, but nothing that resembles the popular idea of Nessie. Rather, the stories were of water monsters of Scottish folklore like the kelpie, or of out-of-place known animals like a six-foot bottle-nosed dolphin that was captured at sea and released in the loch as a prank in 1868.

Then, in August of 1933 a couple on holiday from London, Mr. and Mrs. George Spicer, reported seeing a quote “dragon or prehistoric animal” unquote crossing the road 50 yards or so in front of their car near the loch. Mr. Spicer said quote “It seemed to have a long neck which moved up and down, in the manner of a scenic railway, and the body was fairly big, with a high back.” unquote. The creature was gray and seemed to be carrying a lamb or other animal at its shoulder. Spicer described it as 25 to 30 feet long, with no feet or tail visible although Spicer said he thought the tail must be curved around behind the body.

You know what else happened in 1933? King Kong was released in April of that year. If you haven’t seen the movie, or haven’t seen it in a long time, there’s a long-necked dinosaur in the movie that overturns a raft and kills the men aboard. The movie was a sensation unlike anything today, and that dinosaur looks identical to what George Spicer described seeing, right down to the details of the hidden feet, tail curved behind the body, and even the lamb or other animal it was carrying, since in the movie, the monster plucks a man from a tree and shakes him in its mouth at precisely the angle Spicer describes. In fact, Spicer admitted in an interview a few months after his sighting that he had seen King Kong and that his monster strongly resembled the dinosaur in the movie.

Spicer’s story hit the newspapers and spawned dozens of similar reports, along with a huge influx of tourists hoping to see the monster. Locals took advantage of the situation by branding everything in sight with Nessie, from beach toys to floor polish. By 1934 Nessie had appeared in a talkie called The Secret of the Loch, not to mention in radio shows, cartoons, popular songs, and basically everything. Her popularity hasn’t faded since.

One good thing has come from Nessie’s popularity. Loch Ness has been studied far more than it would have been otherwise. The water is murky with low visibility, so underwater cameras aren’t much use. However, submersibles with cameras attached have been deployed many times in the loch. In 1972 a dramatic result was reported, with a clearly diamond-shaped flipper photographed from a submersible, but it turned out that the flipper was basically painted onto two photos that otherwise show nothing but the reflection of light on silt or bubbles. Sonar scanning has been done on the entire lake repeatedly, in 1962, 1968, 1969, twice in 1970, 1981 through 1982, 1987, and 2003. They found no gigantic animals. The 1987 scan resulted in three hits of something larger than the biggest known salmon in the loch, but much smaller than a lake monster. It’s possible that the hits were only debris such as sunken boats or logs. From all the scans, though, we know there are no hidden outlets to the sea under the lake’s surface.

There are lots of known animals in and around the loch, from salmon to otters, and lots and lots of birds. Seals frequently visit, coming up the shallow River Ness through its locks. Any of these animals, especially the seals, may have contributed to Nessie sightings over the years, together with boats seen in the distance and floating debris such as logs. The lake doesn’t contain enough fish to sustain a population of large mystery animals even if they had somehow eluded all those sonar scans. No bones or dead bodies have been found, and no clear photographs have ever been taken of an unknown animal.

So that’s that. Sorry, Nessie. But what about other lake monsters?

Lake Champlain between New York and Vermont in the United States and part of Quebec in Canada, is supposedly home to a monster called Champ. Lake Champlain is bigger than Loch Ness but not as deep, around 125 miles long but no more than 14 miles wide at any point, and only about 400 feet deep. Like Loch Ness, it’s above sea level, in this case around 100 feet above. In summer the water is warm, while in winter part or even all of the lake may freeze over.

Lake Champlain has been around in one form or another for about 200 million years, when a big chunk of bedrock fell into a fissure between two faults, forming a canyon that filled with water from streams. Around 3 million years ago during the Pleistocene—that’s the ice age, remember—the entire region was covered with a mile-thick sheet of ice.

Ice is heavy, and since the continental ice sheets sat on the area for three million years, their weight pressed the rock down so that it was below sea level. When the ice melted around 12,000 years ago, it took a few thousand years before the rocks rose to their current levels—a process known as isostatic rebound. Between the time the ice sheets stopped blocking the ocean to the time the area rose above sea level, waters from the Atlantic flowed in and formed a shallow inland sea. Geologists call it the Champlain Sea.

The Champlain Sea was only around for about 2,000 years, and while it was connected to the Atlantic, the water wasn’t as salty as the ocean since there was so much runoff from melting glaciers. The sea shrank steadily as the land rose, until finally the ocean inlet was cut off. Fresh water flushed out the salt, creating the lake we see today.

The lake is home to a lot of genuinely big fish, including sturgeon, salmon, gar, pike, and some introduced game fish species like European carp. Naturally it’s a busy lake, with lots of anglers and tourists. Even the shipwrecks are a tourist draw, with divers required to register yearly for permission to explore the wrecks.

Many people quote Samuel de Champlain’s 1609 journal entry as the first sighting of the monster. But the famous quote about a 20-foot serpent thick as a barrel is a fake published in the summer 1970 issue of Vermont Life. A genuine quote from Champlain’s journal is less monstery. It’s clear he’s talking about a fish. Here’s the quote: “[T]here is also a great abundance of many species of fish. Amongst others there is one called by the natives Chaousarou, which is of various lengths; but the largest of them, as these tribes have told me, are from eight to ten feet long. I have seen some five feet long, which were as big as my thigh, and had a head as large as my two fists, with a snout two feet and a half long, and a double row of very sharp, dangerous teeth. Its body has a good deal the shape of the pike; but it is protected by scales of a silvery gray colour and so strong that a dagger could not pierce them.”

This description is probably that of the longnose gar, which can grow over six feet long and has a lot of sharp teeth in a very long jaw. It’s usually brownish or greenish but can appear silvery in color, and it has overlapping scales that are quite thick.

Whatever Champlain was talking about, it wasn’t Champ. It’s not until 1819 that a real monster is reported in the lake. The account appeared in the July 24, 1819 newspaper the Plattsburgh Republican, and is an account of a Captain Crum from a few days before. I looked up the original, which is available online in a pretty good scan—I could read the whole article except for one word—and guess what? It’s not real. It’s not even a hoax. It’s just one of those jokey space-fillers from back in the olden days when everyone apparently had the same sense of humor found in old Reader’s Digests. It’s short so I’m just going to quote you the whole dang thing exactly as it appears.

Mr. Printer,
On Thursday last, the inhabitants on the shore of Bulwagga Bay, were alarmed by the appearance of a monster, which from the description must be a relation of the Great Sea Serpent.
Captain Crum, who witnessed the sight, relates that about eight o’clock in the morning when putting out from shore in a scow, he discovered at a distance of not more than two hundred yards, an unusual undulation of the surface of the water, which was somethinged by the appearance of a monster rearing its head more than fifteen feet and moving with the utmost velocity to the south—at the same time lashing with its Tail two large Sturgeon and a Bill-fish which appeared to be engaged in pursuit. After the consternation occasioned by such a terrific spectacle had subsided, Capt. Crum took a particular survey of this singular animal, which he describes to be about 187 feet long, its head flat with three teeth, two in the under and one in the upper jaw, in shape similar to the sea-horse—the color black, with a star in the forehead and a belt of red around the neck—its body about the size of a hogshead with bunches on the back as large as a common potash barrel—the eyes large and the color of a pealed onion. He continued to move with astonishing rapidity towards the shore for about a minute, when suddenly he darted under water and has not since been seen, altho’ many fishing boats have been on the look out. Capt. Crum informs me that he has sent an express to Capt. Rich, of Boston, communicating this intelligence, but is fearful that before his arrival this disturber of our waters may be changed to a pickerel. Mr. *******, the celebrated engraver of the Battle of Plattsburgh, is now at this place, prepared to take a sketch of his terrific majesty, should he again make his appearance.
I am, sir, with great respect,
your ob’t serv’t.


It isn’t until 1873 that some seemingly real sightings show up. During that year there were two reports of a water serpent—estimated by one witness, a sheriff, at around 30 feet. The idea of a lake monster began to gain traction. PT Barnum even offered a reward for the monster’s skin.

The best evidence for Champ’s existence is a 1977 photo taken by Sandra Mansi. She and her family had stopped by the lake and her kids were paddling in the shallows when Mansi spotted the monster. She says she was terrified and rushed to get her children out of the water, but she took one picture. But she didn’t show the photo to anyone until 1981 when a friend pointed out how important it was. By then the negative was lost.

I’ll put the picture in the show notes. At first glance it’s stunning, clearly showing a monster with a slender neck curved away from the viewer, its skin gleaming with water in the sun. Part of its sloped back is visible above the water. Its head is small and in shadow.

But look more closely and things start to appear less clear. The photo is grainy, without a lot of detail. There appears to be something else in the water near the monster’s neck, far enough away and of such size that it can’t be a flipper or tail, but the same color as the monster. There’s also a little bump at the base of the monster’s neck that doesn’t look very biological. It almost looks like a root.

General consensus, and I agree, is that the picture shows nothing more exciting than a half-submerged tree stump with one curved root sticking up out of the water. And Mansi’s story doesn’t hold up either. For a long time she claimed she couldn’t remember where the picture was taken although she’s familiar with the area, but in more recent interviews she says she’s withholding information about the site so no one could find and kill the monster. She claims she never kept photo negatives—in his excellent book Hunting Monsters, Darren Naish calls this “a peculiar habit,” but back before digital cameras I never kept negatives either. But Mansi’s husband said in an interview that that particular negative had been specifically destroyed—either burnt or buried—because of the bad feelings Mansi had about the encounter. Since Mansi claimed at various times that the photo itself was either in an album or actually hung in the kitchen, she can’t have been too upset about it. If she was upset, why didn’t she destroy the picture at the same time as the negative?

Various people have pinpointed the spot where the picture was taken. It’s in Missiquoi Bay, which is no more than 14 feet deep, and the spot where the monster appears in the photo is only six feet deep with a fast current. In other words, a big lake monster is unlikely to be swimming in such shallow water, but a tree stump with roots might be tumbled there by the current.

There are plenty of other photos and videos taken at the lake, none of them convincing. But there is a mystery associated with the lake that may or may not have anything to do with Champ. I mentioned this in our strange recordings episode, episode eight. Squeaks, squeals, and loud clicking that sounds like echolocation was recorded underwater in Lake Champlain in 2003 by the Discovery Channel and in 2014 by local Champ enthusiasts. Fish-finding sonar and other artificial sources have been ruled out due to the irregularities in the sounds. In March 2010 the article “Echolocation in a fresh water lake” appeared in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, written by Elizabeth von Muggenthaler. The journal is about the field of acoustics, not a biological studies journal. Recent articles include one about laser-driven hearing aids, one about soundscape evaluations, and others that are so technical I don’t even know what they’re talking about, like “Solving transient acoustic boundary value problems with equivalent sources using a lumped parameter approach.” It’s not about whales, at least. On the other hand, Von Muggenthaler is a bioacoustician who was part of the Discovery Channel scientific team that recorded the clicking in 2003. Her work includes discoveries in infrasound made by giraffes and rhinos. She returned to Lake Champlain in 2009 for further research, although I haven’t discovered any reports of their findings.

The 2003 recording has been examined by Dr. Lance Barret Lennard, head of the cetacean research program at Vancouver aquarium. He doesn’t think the sounds are mammalian in origin and has doubts that they’re echolocation. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t being made by an animal. Around the same time as the Discovery Channel recordings but on the other side of the world, Snake-neck turtles in Australia were discovered to be making underwater percussive sounds that resemble echolocation as well as squeaks, chirps, and many other noises.

A lot of people think the 2003 and 2014 Lake Champlain recordings sound like beluga whales. We know whales and other marine animals lived in the Champlain Sea because we’ve found their remains, but whales can’t survive long in fresh water and even if they could, they’d be easily spotted when they came up to breathe. Beluga whales in particular are easily identified since they have round white heads that look like big eggs popping up to the surface of the water. But what if something else, something unknown, lived in the Champlain sea and stayed there after its access to the Atlantic was cut off? What if it was able to tolerate the increasingly freshening water and lives there still?

This would be awesome. It might also explain the clicking sounds recorded in the lake. But don’t forget how busy this lake is. Whatever unknown animal might be hiding in the lake, it simply can’t be gigantic, no matter how shy. We’d have definitive proof by now, probably by an astonished fisherman who hauled it up on his line, or a body washed ashore like the 7-foot sturgeon found in August of 2016, dead of natural causes. A diver might have seen it, or a commercial fisherman running sophisticated sonar.

My guess is the clicking is made by a fish, reptile, or maybe an amphibian that’s already known to science, but no one realizes it makes these noises. Whatever animal makes it, and whether or not it’s actual echolocation, it’s exciting. If I was in charge of investigations into the recordings, I’d take a good hard look at what might be hiding in the mud, especially turtles. I’d also order pizza for the team every night! And donuts with sprinkles! Good work, team.

Here’s a sample of the squeaks and clicks recorded in 2014.


We’d be here all night and day if I were to go over every lake monster ever reported. Almost every body of water has its own monster. I grew up near Norris Lake, which was formed in the 1930s when the Clinch River was dammed by the Tennessee Valley Authority. When I was a kid, it was “common knowledge” that there were catfish at the base of the dam as big as VW Bugs. Yeah, I don’t think so. But stories of monstrous fish, huge water snakes, and gigantic unidentified reptilian creatures are a staple of local legends everywhere. We want to tell scary stories about what might be under the water! That doesn’t mean there aren’t monsters out there, but it also doesn’t mean every story is true.

The problem with lake monsters is twofold. Firstly, a lake is a confined body of water. It’s not like the ocean, where any number of huge creatures can hide completely unknown to humans except for rare chance encounters. Even a big lake has limited space and resources compared to the ocean. A small lake simply can’t support a viable breeding population of giant animals, and since lakes are usually well populated by humans, it’s impossible to imagine that anything large living in the water wouldn’t be seen clearly and regularly by boaters and locals—not to mention that it would impact the ecology of its lake, which would definitely be noted by researchers.

Secondly, the reports we do have don’t make up a clear picture of one type of unknown animal. This sighting talks about a long-necked dinosaur-like monster crossing the road, but this other sighting describes a serpentine monster swimming in the lake, while a third sighting is just a triangular head or fin visible above the water. They can’t all three be the same animal, but one small lake simply can’t support three gigantic animals.

It’s clear, then, that a lot of the genuine sightings (that is, ones that aren’t hoaxes) have to be of known animals or floating debris that witnesses misidentified. This is just plain human nature, too. If you’re visiting Loch Ness or Lake Champlain, you’re undoubtedly familiar with the local stories—honestly, you can’t not be familiar with them. Nessie and Champ are local mascots. If you then spot something strange in the water, your first thought is that you’ve seen the monster. Later you might think it over and realize maybe that was just a big sturgeon at the surface. But by then your monster sighting has made it into the papers and onto the cryptozoological websites as genuine.

That said, I’m totally open to the possibility of unknown animals hiding in lakes. New species are discovered all the time—most of them small, but sometimes we get surprises. A new species of freshwater stingray was discovered a few years ago in Brazil, and it’s four feet long.

It’s pretty clear that I need to revisit lake monsters in a future episode, just as I have plans to explore sea monsters again. There’s just too much to cover in one episode. But that’s it for now. Until next week, keep your ears open for weird clicking sounds and if anyone is rude to you, feel free to shout, “HORSE MACKEREL, SIR”. I know I’m going to.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.com. We’re on Twitter at strangebeasties and have a facebook page at facebook.com/strangeanimalspodcast. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, give us a rating and review on iTunes or whatever platform you listen on. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way. Rewards include exclusive twice-monthly episodes and stickers.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 028: Crawdads and Cicadas

Hello from Finland! While I’m far from home, I’m thinking of animals of my native land. So join me to learn about crawdads (aka crayfish aka crawfish aka freshwater lobsters aka everything) and cicadas!

A lovely blue crayfish from Indonesia:

Fite me

The giant Tasmanian crayfish:

A periodical cicada:

A cicada killer about to do horrible things to a cicada. Nature is disgusting.

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

For this week’s episode, which I’m putting together right before I leave for Finland on a madcap two-week adventure—okay, two weeks staying in the city of Helsinki while attending a conference and eating a lot of pastries—I’m going to look at two invertebrates that live close to home. The first is the crawdad. I’ve always wondered if those muddy holes near creeks and streams that we call crawdad holes around here are actually crawdad holes. Sometimes they’re nowhere near water. So I looked it up.

Yes, they are actually holes dug by crawdads. So that’s one mystery solved. The crawdad has a lot of different names depending on where you live: crayfish, crawfish, mountain lobsters, freshwater lobsters, mudbugs, and many other names. In Australia they may be called yabbies. There are a lot of species throughout the world, most of them in North America. Some also live in South America, Australia, New Zealand, Madagascar, Japan, and Europe. In fact, they live everywhere except Africa and Antarctica.

Crawdads are freshwater crustaceans and eat just about anything. Some species prefer running water, others like still water, but they all need clean water. If you find crawdads in the creek behind your house, you can be happy to know the creek has clean water—but don’t drink it, seriously. That’s a gross story for another time, but trust me, don’t drink untreated water.

Crawdads look like little lobsters and are closely related to them, and people do eat them. Some species are kept as pets in freshwater aquariums, although if you add them to your aquarium definitely make sure you’re not just providing your fish with a crunchy new snack, since a lot of fish eat crustaceans. Also keep in mind that many species of crawdad like to climb and dig so can make a mess of your nicely arranged tank.

One especially sought-after aquarium crawdad is a blue crayfish. Like blue lobsters, crawdads of normally drab colored species are occasionally found that are bright blue. It’s rare but not ridiculously rare. But there aren’t very many species that are always blue. This particular crawdad is beautiful, purplish pink on its body with blue and white claws and legs. But when they started showing up in the pet trade in the early 2000s, scientists didn’t have any idea what species they were. And the pet sellers weren’t telling where they were found.

After some digging, German researcher Christian Lukhaup traced the crawdads to a creek in Indonesia. It’s a new species, announced in 2015. We don’t know how widespread it is. Researchers worry it may be rare and threatened, and unfortunately most of the ones sold as pets have been gathered from the wild.

Many species of crawdads dig burrows. The bottom of the burrow ends in water, whether it’s a creek or the water table or just wet mud. Crawdads breathe through gills, but their gills are in their abdomen under their shell. As long as the gills are wet, the crawdad doesn’t have to actually be in the water to breathe. Crawdads are nocturnal animals and stay in their burrows during the day, then come out at night. The top of the burrow is usually surrounded by mud that the crawdad has pushed out of its hole. Other crawdad species live under rocks.

One of the smallest crawdad species is found in eastern Australia. It’s less than an inch long—usually only 12 to 18 millimeters in length, not counting its antennae—and is called a lake yabby or eastern swamp crayfish. It was only discovered a few years ago. It’s bluish-black and spends a lot of its time in its burrow, which usually reaches down to the water table so the yabby can survive during the dry season, when the shallow lakes and swamps where it lives may dry up completely.

New species of crawdad are found all the time. In 2009 a possible new species was reported in Tennessee. Two biologists, one from the University of Illinois and the other from Eastern Kentucky University, took a research trip to Shoal Creek, near the Tennessee-Alabama border. The very first crawdad they found, after only two hours of searching, turned out to be a new species—and it’s not exactly small. It’s some five inches long, which is roughly the length between the tip of my pinky finger and the base of my palm. I just measured out of curiosity. Most crawdads in the area are about half that length. DNA testing confirmed that it’s a new species and it was formally described in 2010. It’s related to another big crawdad found in Kentucky and Tennessee, which can grow up to 9 inches long. Both species appear to be rare and live under rocks in the deepest parts of a few streams and small rivers.

The biggest species of crawdad living is the Tasmanian giant freshwater lobster. It lives a long time, up to 60 years, if nothing eats it, and can weigh as much as 13 pounds and grow over two and a half feet long.

There are mysteries associated with the crawdad. For instance, most of Asia doesn’t have crawdads at all, but the ones that are found in Asia are more closely related to the crawdads of the southeastern United States than the crawdads of the southeastern United States are related to the crawdads of the northwestern United States. The northwestern U.S. crawdads appear more closely related to those found in Europe. But the big mystery is why there aren’t any crawdads in Africa.

Crawdads evolved from their marine ancestors around 200 million years ago. Around the same time, a big chunk of the earth’s land was smushed together in a big continent called Gondwana. The continents move around all the time—very, very slowly from a human perspective—due to plate tectonics. That’s why some of the animals found in, for instance, South America are closely related to animals found in Africa, because those two continents were once joined together. If you look on a map or globe you can even see that they fit together like puzzle pieces.

So crawdads evolved when Gondwana was just starting to break up into smaller continents. That explains why there are so many crawdads in different parts of the world—crawdads had time to spread out across much of Gondwana before it broke apart. But what would later be called Africa was right in the middle of Gondwana, and we know it had plenty of freshwater that crawdads could have lived in. Why didn’t crawdads populate that area?

It’s possible they did, but that as Africa moved farther toward the equator over millions of years, the crawdads died out. Crawdads prefer temperate climates—not too hot and not too cold. But there are two problems with that hypothesis. First, we haven’t found any crawdad fossils anywhere in Africa. By itself that’s not too unusual, since arthropods don’t fossilize well. They don’t have bones and their shells decompose relatively quickly. Plus, everything eats them so they don’t typically lie around undisturbed in the mud. But the other problem is more, well, problematic. Africa is a huge continent and most of it has never been that close to the equator. Parts of it have always been rainy and temperate, the perfect crawdad environment. And the island of Madagascar, which separated from Africa some 135 million years ago, does have crawdads. Plus, there are crawdads in parts of Australia that are much warmer than most of Africa. Plus, crawdads from the United States have been introduced into parts of Africa and have done so well they’re now an invasive species. What gives?

Africa does have a lot of freshwater crabs, which occupy the same ecological niche that crawdads do. It’s possible crawdads might have been outcompeted by the crabs. But freshwater crabs prefer tropical climates, not temperate. And in the parts of Africa where crawdads have been introduced, they’re actually thriving so well they’re endangering the native freshwater crabs.

So at the moment, we don’t know why Africa doesn’t have any native crawdads. The reason is probably more complicated than any one thing. For instance, if crawdads in one area were already dealing with freshwater crabs horning in on their food sources and territories, and the temperature was steadily increasing over the centuries, any little setback might have caused the crawdads to go extinct.

There are rumors of gigantic crawdads yet to be discovered. The remote Japanese Lake Mashu, formed some 11,000 years ago in the crater of a dormant volcano, is supposedly home to giant crayfish. There are rumors that trout poachers in 1978 and 1985 captured huge crawdads in the lake, although no pictures exist and no one is sure how big huge is supposed to be in this case. There is one report of a crawdad some two feet long found in the lake. A fisherman also reported seeing one that was three feet long, although he didn’t capture or measure it. As far as we know, the only crawdad living in the lake is a North America species introduced into the lake in the 1930s. It typically grows around 6 inches long, but a 1992 study of the lake’s crawdads didn’t find any larger than two and a half inches long.

During World War II, Australian marines patrolling swampland in Borneo found a crawdad that measured more than four feet long and weighed 49 pounds. It was caught in fresh water although it resembled a marine lobster. The marines nicknamed it Bagaton. The corpse was kept but so far it hasn’t been studied, but take this whole story with a grain of salt because I can only find two sources online that mention it at all.

While I was finishing up my crawdad research, I was on Twitter complaining that I didn’t quite have enough information for a full episode and I wasn’t sure what animal to pair it with. One of the hosts of Rumor Flies, an awesome podcast about rumors and myths, suggested cicadas. That made perfect sense to me, since cicadas are THE sound of summer in the southeastern United States.

I happen to love the sound of cicadas. Yes, they’re loud, but I find their chiming restful. Cicadas call during the day when it’s hottest, not at night—the insects you hear at night are usually katydids and tree crickets. This is what cicadas sound like.

[cicada sound—really you are not missing much, it’s just a rhythmic drone that I find soothing]

On the other hand, cicadas are creepy-looking although they’re harmless. When I was very small I was afraid of cicada shells, which are what’s left behind when a cicada hatches from its nymph form into its adult form. The adult cicada has wings and the male has a really, really loud song—so loud that he disengages his own hearing while he sings so he won’t deafen himself. Cicadas don’t have ears like mammals, they have a membraneous structure called tympana that detects sound. Males produce their loud songs with a structure called a tymbal in their abdomen. The abdomen is mostly hollow, which helps amplify the rapid clicking of the tembals. Some cicada songs are louder than 120 decibels, which is the same decibel level as a chainsaw.

There are a lot of cicada species around the world, but most live in the tropics. Seven species are known as periodical cicadas, which live most of their lives underground as nymphs, eating sap from the roots of certain trees, but emerge from underground as adults all at once. They sing, mate, lay eggs, and die in a matter of weeks, and the babies that hatch from their eggs don’t emerge from underground for another 13 or 17 years, depending on the species. Other cicada species have similar life cycles, but they don’t all emerge from underground at the same time—some emerge every summer while others remains as nymphs.

Cicadas are eaten by birds, bats, spiders, and even squirrels. There’s even a wasp called a cicada killer that preys specifically on cicadas—it captures a cicada, takes it back to its underground nest, and lays eggs in it. The eggs hatch and eat the cicada’s insides. BUT THE CICADA IS STILL ALIVE. I try not to think about insects too often. Cicada killers have black and yellow stripes like yellow jackets, but are much larger, up to two inches long. They will sting but only if provoked. They have to be big because cicadas are big insects, also about two inches long in most species.

Cicadas are edible, and are considered delicacies in many cultures. The females are meatier since the males have that hollow abdomen. In case you were wondering what to look for when you go shopping.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.com. We’re on Twitter at strangebeasties and have a facebook page at facebook.com/strangeanimalspodcast. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on iTunes or whatever platform you listen on. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way. For only a dollar pledge a month on Patreon you’ll have access to all the patron-only episodes, which I release twice a month. Some recent episodes have covered scientists eating mammoth meat, animals with weird teeth, and the Beast of Busco. Also you get stickers.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 027: Creatures of the Deeps

This week is our six-month anniversary! To celebrate, we’ll learn about some of the creatures that live at the bottom of the Mariana Trench’s deepest section, Challenger Deep, as well as other animals who live in deep caves on land. We also learn what I will and will not do for a million dollars (hint: I will not implode in a bathysphere).

A xenophyophore IN THE GRIP OF A ROBOT

A snailfish from five miles down in the Mariana trench:

The Hades centipede. It’s not as big as it looks, honest.

The tiny but marvelous olm.

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

For this week’s episode, we’re going to find out what lives in the deepest, darkest places of the earth—places humans have barely glimpsed. We’re not just talking deep sea, we’re talking the abyssal depths.

Like onions and parfaits, the earth is made up of many layers. The core of the earth is a ball of nickel and iron surrounded by more nickel and iron. The outer core is molten metal, but the inner core, even though it’s even hotter than the outer core—as hot as the surface of the sun—has gone through the other side of liquid and is solid again. Surrounding the core, the earth’s mantle is a thick layer of rocks and minerals some 1900 miles deep, and on top of that is the crust of the earth, which doesn’t actually sound very appealing but that’s where we live and we know it’s really pretty, with trees and oceans and stuff on top of it. The upper part of the mantle is broken up into tectonic plates, which move around very slowly as the molten metals and rocks beneath them swirl around and get pushed up through cracks in the mantle.

Under the oceans, the crust of the earth is only around 3 miles thick. And in a few places, there are crevices that actually break entirely through the crust into the mantle below. The deepest crack in the sea floor is the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific. At its deepest part, a narrow valley called Challenger Deep, the crack extends seven miles into the earth.

The pressure at that depth is immense, over 1,000 times that at sea level. Animals down there can’t have calcium carbonate shells because the pressure dissolves the mineral. It’s almost completely dark except for bioluminescent animals, and the water is very cold, just above freezing.

The trench is crescent shaped and sits roughly between Japan to the north and Papua New Guinea to the south, and the Philippines to the west. It’s caused by the huge Pacific plate, which is pushing its way underneath the smaller Mariana plate, a process called subduction. But near that activity, another small plate, the Caroline plate, is subducting beneath the Pacific plate. Subduction around the edges of the Pacific plate is the source of the earthquakes, tsunamis, and active volcanos known as the Ring of Fire. Some researchers think there’s a more complicated reason for Mariana Trench and other especially deep trenches nearby, though. There seems to be a tear in the Caroline plate, which is deforming the Pacific Plate above it.

Challenger Deep is such a deep part of the ocean that we’ve barely seen any of it. The first expedition that got all the way down was in 1960, when the bathyscape Trieste reached the bottom of Challenger Deep. This wasn’t an unmanned probe, either. There were two guys in that thing, Jacque Piccard and Don Walsh, almost ten years before the moon landing, on a trip that was nearly as dangerous. They could see out through one tiny thick window with a light outside. The trip down took almost five hours, and when they were nearly at the bottom, one of the outer window panes cracked. They stayed on the bottom only about 20 minutes before releasing the weights and rising back to the surface.

The next expedition didn’t take place until 1995 and it was unmanned. The Kaiko could collect samples as well as record what was around it, and it made repeated descents into Challenger Deep until it was lost at sea in 2003. But it not only filmed and collected lots of fascinating deep-sea creatures, it also located a couple of wrecks and some new hydrothermal vents in shallower areas.

Another unmanned expedition, this one using a remotely operated vehicle called the Nereus, was designed specifically to explore Challenger Deep. It made its first descent in 2009, but in 2014 it imploded while diving in the Kermadec Trench off New Zealand. It imploded. It imploded. This thing that was built to withstand immense pressures imploded.

In 2012, rich movie-maker James Cameron reached the bottom of the Mariana Trench in the Deepsea Challenger. He spent nearly three hours on the bottom. Admittedly this was before the Nereus imploded but you could not get me into a bathysphere if you paid me a million dollars okay well maybe a million but I wouldn’t do it for a thousand. Maybe ten thousand. Anyway, the Deepsea Challenger is currently undergoing repairs after being damaged in a fire that broke out while it was being transported in a truck, which is just the most ridiculous thing to happen it’s almost sad. But it’s still better than imploding.

In addition to these expeditions, tethered cameras and microphones have been dropped into the trench over the years too. So what’s down there that deep? What have these expeditions found?

The first expedition didn’t see much, as it happens. As the bathyscape settled into the ooze at the bottom of the trench, sediment swirled up and just hung in the water around them, unmoving. The guys had to have been bitterly disappointed. But they did report seeing a foot-long flatfish and some shrimp, although the flatfish was more likely a sea cucumber.

There’s actually a lot of life down there in the depths, including amphipods a foot long, sea cucumbers, jellyfish, various kinds of worms, and bacterial mats that look like carpets. Mostly, though, there are Xenophyophores. They make big delicate shells on the ocean bottom, called tests, made from glued-together sand grains, minerals like lead and uranium, and anything else they can find, including their own poops. We don’t know a lot about them although they’re common in the deep sea all over the world. While they’re unicellular, they also appear to have multiple nuclei.

For the most part, organisms living at the bottom of the Challenger Deep are small, no more than a few inches long. This makes sense considering the immense water pressure and the nutrient-poor environment. There aren’t any fish living that deep, either. In 2014 a new species of snailfish was spotted swimming about five miles below the surface, a new record; it was white with broad fins and an eel-like tail. Snailfish are shaped sort of like tadpoles and depending on species, can be as small as two inches long or as long as two and a half feet. A shoal of Hadal snailfish were seen at nearly that depth in 2008 in the Japan Trench.

While there are a number of trenches in the Pacific, there aren’t very many deeps like Mariana Trench’s Challenger Deep—at least, not that we know of. The Sirena Deep was only discovered in 1997. It’s not far from Challenger Deep and is not much shallower. There are other deeps and trenches in the Pacific too. But like Challenger Deep, there aren’t any big animals found in the abyssal depths, although the other deeps haven’t been explored as much yet.

In 2016 and early 2017, NOAA, the U.S. Coast Guard, and Oregon State University dropped a titanium-encased ceramic hydrophone into Challenger Deep. To their surprise, it was noisy as heck down there. The hydrophone picked up the sounds of earthquakes, a typhoon passing over, ships, and whalesong—including the call of a whale researchers can’t identify. They think it’s a type of minke whale, but no one knows yet if it’s a known species we just haven’t heard before or a species completely new to science. For now the call is referred to as the biotwang, and this is what it sounds like.

[biotwang whale call]

But what about animals that live in deep places that aren’t underwater? It’s actually harder to explore land fissures than ocean trenches. Cave systems are hard to navigate, frequently extremely dangerous, and we don’t always know how deep the big ones go. The deepest cave in the world is Krubera Cave, also called Voronya Cave, in Georgia—and I mean the country of Georgia, not the American state. Georgia is a small country on the black sea between Turkey and Russia. So far it’s been measured as a mile and a third deep, but it’s certainly not fully explored. Cave divers keep pushing the explored depth farther and farther, although I do hope they’re careful.

We’ve found some interesting animals living far beneath the earth in caves. The deepest living animal ever found is a primitive insect called a springtail, which lives in Krubera cave and which was discovered in 2010. It’s pale, with no wings, six legs, long antennae, and no eyes. There are a whole lot of springtail species, from snow fleas to those tee-tiny gray bouncy bugs that live around the sink in my bathroom no matter how carefully I clean. All springtails like damp places, so it makes sense that Krubera cave has four different species including the deepest living one. They eat fungi and decomposing organic matter of all kinds. Other creatures new to science have been discovered in Krubera cave, including a new cave beetle and a transparent fish.

A new species of centipede was described in 2015 after it was discovered three-fourths of a mile deep in three different caves in Croatia. It’s called the Hades centipede. It has long antennae, leg claws, and a poisonous bite, but it’s only about an inch long so don’t panic. Also it lives its entire life in the depths of Croatian caves so you’re probably safe. There are only two centipedes that live exclusively in caves and the other one is named after Persephone, Hades’ bride. It was discovered in 1999.

A cave salamander called an olm, which in local folklore was once considered a baby dragon, was recently discovered 370 feet below ground in a subterranean lake, also in Croatia. It’s a fully aquatic salamander that only grows a few inches long. Its body is pale with pink gills. It has eyes, but they’re not fully developed and as it grows, they become covered with layers of skin. It can sense light but can’t otherwise see, but it does have well-developed electroreceptor skills, hearing, smell, and can also sense magnetic fields. It eats snails, insects, and small crustaceans and has very few natural predators.

In 1952 researchers created an artificial riverbed in a cave in France that recreates the olm’s natural habitat as closely as possible. The olms are fed and protected but not otherwise interacted with by humans. There are now over 400 olms in the cave, which is a good thing because in the wild, olms are increasingly threatened by pollution, habitat loss, and unscrupulous collectors who sell them on the pet trade black market.

Olms live a long, long time—probably 100 years or longer. Some individuals in the artificial riverbed are 60 years old and show no signs of old age. Researchers aren’t sure why the olm lives so long. We don’t really know a whole lot about the olm in general, really. They and the caves where they live are protected in Croatia.

There are a few places in the world where people have drilled down into the earth, usually by geologists checking for pockets of gas or water before mining operations start. In several South African gold mines, researchers found four new species of tiny bacteria-eating worms, called nematodes, living in water in boreholes a mile or more deep. After carefully checking to make sure the nematodes hadn’t been introduced into the water from mining operations, the researchers theorized the nematodes already lived in the rocks but that the boreholes created a perfect environment for them. Nematodes are well-known extremophiles, living everywhere from hot springs to the bellies of whales. They can withstand drought, freezing, and other extreme conditions by reverting to what’s called the dauer stage, where they basically put themselves in suspended animation until conditions improve.

The boreholes also turned up some other interesting creatures, including flatworms, segmented worms, and a type of crustacean. They’re all impossibly tiny, nearly microscopic.

If you go any deeper, though, the only living creatures you’ll find are bacteria and other microbes. In a way, though, that’s reassuring. The last thing we want to find when we’re poking around in the world’s deepest cracks is something huge that wants to eat us.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.com. We’re on Twitter at strangebeasties and have a facebook page at facebook.com/strangeanimalspodcast. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on iTunes or whatever platform you listen on. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way. Rewards include stickers and twice-monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!